Dancing In Jaffa (2013)

Dancing In Jaffa

Israeli and Palestininan schoolchildren overcoming their prejudices as they are taught to ballroom dance together is movingly captured in a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Strictly Ballroom

by Alexa Dalby

Dancing in Jaffa

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

How do you solve the Middle East conflict? Well, one way is by dancing with the enemy, this documentary suggests. Dancing in Jaffa documents international champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine as he brings his Dancing Classes programme to 10-year-old Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren, after teaching in the US for 30 years. Dulaine, whose mother was Palestinian and father Irish, is returning to his birthplace, Jaffa, for the first time since his family left in the 1940s when he was four.

Dulaine is a charismatic, ebullient disciple of dance as a way of bringing people together – “When one human being dances with another, something happens, they get to know each other in a way you can’t describe.” In this home of prejudice and discrimination, Dulaine has the ambitious aim of taking children from schools in the different communities and getting Jews and Palestinians to partner each other to learn ballroom dancing.

This is a very touching film in both senses of the word. It’s very moving to see barriers being broken down and hope emerging. And to do any ballroom dancing at all means having to touch your partner. So not only do the children have to be persuaded to overcome their burgeoning shyness with the opposite sex and their reluctance to touch the ‘enemy’, but the Arab children additionally have the addititional cultural hurdle that boys and girls should not dance together. But Dulaine is an irrestistible force and wins them over with the power of his personality, charming them all in a voluble, multilingual mixture of English, Arabic and Hebrew. The tide turns for him when he shows the children a film of himself in his dancing heyday with his partner Yvonne Marceau, who flies in from the US to help him. Once he explains to the children that you don’t have to be married to someone to dance with them, soon Jewish girls are partnering Arab boys and Arab boys are partnering Jewish girls in the first steps of the merenge and the rumba.

The children learning to dance are intercut with scenes of the world around them – adult demonstrations, the opposing reactions of Palestinians and Israelis to national events. And the film focuses on the contrasting stories of three of the children. Noor is devasted by the death of her father and has behavioural problems. Alaa comes from a poor fishing family. And Lois is the child of a single mother by a donor from a sperm bank. We see the effect that learning to dance has on each of them, most marked in Noor, who is “like a closed flower that is opening up” as she starts to make friends and discovers that she can dance.

The finale is an inevitable dance competition. We see the anticipation on the children’s faces as they wait for the announcement of who will be selected to compete, the way those who are not selected are helped to accept their disappointment and the joy of those selected. And finally at the competition, parents from both communities come together in the audience to watch the transformation of their children into confident dancers and partners, where everyone wins and it ends with a jubilant jive. There is even a parent in a burqa filming the event.

It’s been a learning experience. We see the children discussing their surprise that they are dancing with people whose names they don’t even know, and children from the divided communities start visiting each other’s houses – “I like it that we came together”, one of them realises. What they learned, they say, was to trust one another. And with that, Dulaine jets off again. There’s no denying his is a worthwhile project. It’s no mean achievement to get Arab and Israeli children – to their own amazement – touching each other, moving together, looking into each others’ eyes and learning that dance is a common language. In two years, Dulaine has taught 1,000 children to dance. He does this in the hope that teaching them to see each other as human beings and to trust each other in their formative years will influence their behaviour as adults. In the film, it’s wonderful to see these children overcoming their prejudices. To watch troubled Noor coming to life under Dulaine’s influence cannot help but bring a tear to the eye. But in reality, although these are not ignored, the film glosses sunnily over the underlying political and social issues. It creates a wonderful, ultimately joyous sequence of events, but can the feeling last once Dulaine’s powerful, peace-making influence is removed?

It’s interesting to ponder on the film’s crowd-pleasing genesis. It has some heavyweight producers and executive producers – among them Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, amongst many other documentaries), La Toya Jackson and Brit Nigel Lythgoe, producer of the reality TV shows American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Its award-winning director is Israeli Hilla Medalia, who has shot some astonishingly honest and revealing scenes with the children and their parents.

Dancing In Jaffa is released on 13th February 2015 in the UK

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